Spaghetti Can Flowers

Receiving wild flowers in a spaghetti can is not something a girl forgets, especially when they arrive with bacon, wrapped old-school style by the butcher.

“Mary Ellen?”

I was staying at a B & B in small-town Quebec when I heard the door knock. Checking that I was presentable, I put on my mask and opened it.

A thin, sun-hardened arm reached out and passed me the flowers. They had clearly been arranged with care, not simply tossed in the can.

“These are so beautiful, thank you, I-“

The other thin, sun-hardened arm reached out and passed me a package wrapped in brown paper.

“It’s for your breakfast with your friend. You’re going to visit her today, right? It’s bacon.”

Wearing a black kaftan, hair up in a bun, mask on, I stood holding the flowers and bacon. The moment felt surreal and for a second I felt like an actress in a scene from a quirky indie film.

Standing in front of me was the man I had dated when I was just twenty-one years old. Now, thirty years later, he stood before me with these sweet offerings.

I had traveled to rural Quebec for a late summer visit with one of my dearest girlfriends. Realizing my old boyfriend lived nearby, I had reached out to him thinking it would be nice to have a coffee and catch up. But that’s not quite what happened…

I ended up sitting on a lawn chair, in a field behind a workshop, drinking wine from a dirty mason jar. An alarming-looking fire in a metal barrel and a giant pirate’s flag were the only decor. Joining us were his ex brother-in-law and a fast-talking man wearing a straw fedora.

At various points in the evening the guys took turns urinating outside.

“If you need to go pee you can just do it out here, don’t worry, we won’t look and you’ll be safe. I’ll protect you,” said my ex.

Wait what? Peeing outside? What is happening?

On the walk over to his artist meets Hells’ Angels living quarters, I had struggled to connect with the man I once knew. He had a hard time making eye contact, was fidgety and clearly drunk.

I learned he had a grown daughter whom he deeply loved. That he knew how to survive in the wilderness (yikes, why?) and had spent time in Ireland. He’d also worked for years on large ships and loved to write poetry. That’s what I got, just a broad outline. But there were details. The details were in the scent he gave off: a blend of grief and complete despair.

“You know me. I’ve been trying to kill myself for years,” he said casually, just like someone might say, “you know me, I love ice cream.”

His pain completely overwhelmed me. I felt like any second it might swallow me up whole. Part of me wanted to run – fast – away from the field. But I also knew that his pain deserved to be seen, his pain deserved to be acknowledged. And so I sat in the field, drinking wine from a dirty mason jar and bore witness to it.

Later that night, alone at my B & B, I was overcome with sorrow. It shattered my twenty-one year old’s heart to see him so broken. I remembered him being wild and troubled when we dated, but also kind and romantic. One time he surprised me at the bus station:
I was returning from visiting a friend and there he was, hands in his pockets, staring at the windows trying to locate me, his eyes lighting up when he saw me. I distinctly remember thinking: “I can’t believe he’s here!” There were no cell phones or emojis back then, but if there were I would have texted my girlfriends:
“OMG he’s waiting at the station for me!💖😍🤸‍♀️👏💕”

Being presented with flowers and bacon the morning after such a crushing evening was not something I was prepared for. But, the moment was tender and real and awkward and despite the sadness I felt it was also beautiful.

#trauma #oldboyfriends #lifestories #quebec

The Thief

Back in the mid-1980’s if you were a victim of sexual violence you hid it behind your stacked rubber Madonna bracelets and teased bangs. No one talked about it.

As a teenager in that era sex was a fraught issue for me. AIDS was front and centre in the 80’s making it scary. Also, my mother was a recovering Catholic, her internalized shame about sexuality passed down to me like a piece of heirloom jewelry.

When I was raped in high school I was still a virgin. I told no one about the assault and when my attacker gossiped that “he’d slept with me,” I brushed it off like it was no big deal.

The trauma quickly morphed into a skilled thief, stealing years of my life.

I didn’t have sex with anyone for the rest of high school. In my early twenties came a brief stage of boyfriends whom I slept with. The men were not worthy of me, but at the time they were all I felt I deserved. My broken psyche did not like what she was seeing though:

“You’re dating total losers, you’re on a precarious path!” she screamed.

Like the Goddess Artemis, my psyche was my protector. But since she was broken she didn’t know how to best take care of me. Fearing for my safety, she went a bit nuts and shut me down completely.

“No men, no dating, no sex!” she yelled.

So I spent 3/4 of my twenties and the first few years of my thirties single. I was like a flower that had been planted, started growing and then just before it could blossom a crazy gardener came along and put a giant terracotta pot on top of it – killing it.

Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with being single, but being single because of unresolved trauma is very different.

The trauma thief stole my entire early adulthood. Years meant for learning about myself and relationships. For making mistakes and exploring my sexuality. For learning how to trust my instincts and stand up for myself. For dating wannabe poets and having affairs with much older lovers. But I was completely Shut Down, so I lost an entire decade. Pouf!

I spent part of that decade in Austin, a city I loved. I made beautiful friendships and had a great job. But I spent most nights alone. No cute Austin musicians or Texas cowboys for me.

I still grieve for those lost years. Looking at photos of myself from that time I see such a lovely, lonely girl. Though I’m not a big believer in destiny, I do believe that had I seen a therapist during those years I would have stayed in Austin – that it actually was my destiny to stay there. I can totally see myself married, with a grown child, still living in Texas and fighting the Handmaid’s Tale tyranny of Governor Greg Abbott.

Since then I have had the luxury of being able to work with a couple of excellent therapists, but there will forever be a little nest of grief inside of me. I envision it like a small bird’s nest, but with some glittery grass, for even in my grief there is sparkle. There are no birds or eggs in the nest. It is empty, but pretty and it lives in my throat.

(In the ancient Indian text the Vedas, the throat chakra is associated with the ability to speak your personal truth.)

“Sanctuary” by artist Sarah Treanor

A Million Pieces

“So, Janet, how have you been feeling since our last session?”

“Broken.”

“In what way?”

“In what way do I feel broken? You know, like in the typical broken way. Like if you imagine a vase dropping to the floor and shattering into a million pieces. And then maybe imagine trying to bend down and pick up the pieces, but in doing so you cut both your hands and feet on the ceramic shards. So now you’re sitting on the floor surrounded by pieces of your favorite flea market vintage vase and you’re bleeding. The blood is staining the ceramic shards so that instead of their pale oatmeal color they are turning a light rose shade. And as you’re sitting there in pain, both because you lost your favorite vase and because you now have cuts – and because you feel broken – you realize that you actually like the light rose color. So you think about just continuing to sit on the floor and allowing your blood to stain all the pieces of the vase. Because this rose color, it’s so much prettier.”

“I see. Well, that doesn’t sound too good.

“Nope.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard about the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi? The art of putting broken pieces of pottery back together with gold? It’s built on the idea that in embracing imperfections you can create an even stronger and more beautiful piece of art. Does that idea resonate with you at all?”

“No.”

“Why do you think it doesn’t resonate with you?”

“Well, first of all I don’t have any gold to repair the vase with. Second of all, I’m kind of like bleeding out on the floor, so I don’t really have the energy to repair anything.”

“I understand. I’m very concerned about you feeling broken. Are you having any suicidal thoughts?”

“You mean like taking the broken ceramic pieces and plunging them into my neck or heart?”

“Yes. Or, any other type of suicidal thoughts.”

“Not really. I’m too drained from feeling broken to take any action, so you don’t need to worry about that.”

“Okay. Remember in our last session I asked you to keep a Joy Journal? Have you written down any moments of joy from the last two weeks?”

“Let me check…My favorite bakery gave me an extra cupcake, so like I paid for one but got two. I don’t know if that qualifies, but I did write it down.”

“Good. What else?”

“I discovered an affordable eye cream that works just as well as the expensive one I was using.”

“Very good. What else?”

“I saw a very pretty red bird on the bush outside my house.”

“A cardinal?”

“What?”

“Was the bird a cardinal?”

“I don’t know. It was just a pretty red bird.”

“Excellent. What else?”

“That’s it.”

“Nothing else?”

“No. I mean as I told you at the beginning of the session I’ve been feeling broken. So my life hasn’t exactly been joy-packed.”

“Yes, totally makes sense. Listen Janet I have an idea, if you’re open to it.”

“What is it?”

“Let’s pick up all the broken pieces, one at a time. And you name each piece – for instance grief or loneliness – then we’ll explore the emotions that come up for you.”

“I’m open to that. I mean we’re going to be picking up like a bazillion pieces, but okay. I just have one request.”

“What is it?”

“The Joy Journal has got to go.”

Dr. Finkelstein smiled.

Spaghetti Can Flowers

This summer I received wild flowers in a tin spaghetti can. The flowers arrived with a package of butcher’s bacon. Yes, that’s right, I received flowers and bacon together.

At my B & B in small-town Quebec there was a knock on my door. I checked that I was presentable, threw on my Covid mask and opened it.

A thin, sun-hardened arm reached out and passed me the flowers. They were lovely and had clearly been arranged with care, not simply tossed in the can.

“These are beautiful, what a sweet gesture, thank you so much, I…”

The same thin, sun-hardened arm reached out again and passed me a package wrapped in brown paper.

“It’s for your breakfast with your friend. You’re going to visit her today, right? It’s bacon.”

Wearing a black goth-y mumu, hair in a giant bun, floral mask on, I stood holding the flowers and bacon. I felt like an actress in a scene from a quirky indie film. The gift-giver was my ex-boyfriend from 30 years ago, we had dated briefly when we were just twenty years old.

I had come to Quebec specifically for a late summer, covid-safe outdoor visit with one of my oldest & most beautifully eccentric girlfriends. When I realized my old-boyfriend lived nearby I thought it would be fun to have a coffee or a glass of wine with him and catch up. I was not prepared for flowers and bacon, nor for what I had experienced the night before.

The previous evening I had spent sitting in a field with my ex and two other men, one a close family friend of his and one a straw hat-wearing man whom he appeared to loathe. A somewhat alarming-looking fire roared nearby in a metal barrel and a giant pirate’s flag decorated the outdoor workspace behind us. Music blasted from somewhere as we drank wine from jam jars that had seen better days. At various points in the evening the guys took turns peeing outside.

“If u need to go pee, you can just do it out here, don’t worry, we won’t look and you’ll be safe. I’ll protect you,” said my ex.

On the walk over to his artist-meets Hells’ Angels living quarters, I discovered that the man I once knew was buried under layers of pain. He had a hard time making eye contact, he fidgeted and he was drunk. Though he smelled like beer, he smelled more like suffering; layers of suffering. Like a trauma layer cake with his old self as the bottom layer. Followed by a layer of deep grief and loss, then a layer of un-treated depression and self-destructive behaviour, iced with a thick layer of sadness. I knew he had been in the Service, so added to the layers were sprinkles of PTSD.

I felt his spirit had been so badly broken, that he had given up and now resided at the bottom of the trauma cake, unable to cast off the layers.

Later that night, alone at my B & B, I was overcome with sorrow. Deep sorrow, sorrow so intense that it alarmed me. I wanted to help him. I wanted to witness him with his spirit intact again. I wanted to smash that trauma cake.

So no, I was not prepared to receive flowers and bacon the next morning. But I will never forget them. The moment was tender and real and awkward and despite the sadness I had felt the night before and still felt, it was also beautiful.

#trauma #oldboyfriends #lifestories #quebec

Intimacy After Cancer Treatment

I wrote an essay about navigating romantic love after cancer treatment and it was published in The Globe & Mail Newspaper (Canadian Newspaper).  Here is the link:

https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/navigating-intimacy-after-trauma-is-something-no-one-can-prepare-youfor/article36237918/?ref=https://www.theglobeandmail.com&